Authen­ti­cal­ly Ortho­dox: A Tra­di­tion-Bound Faith in Amer­i­can Life

  • Review
By – June 16, 2020

In the 1987 Purim edi­tion of one of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty’s stu­dent news­pa­pers, read­ers were encour­aged, in a mock adver­tise­ment, to pur­chase a set of trad­ing cards depict­ing great rab­bis of Mod­ern Ortho­doxy. Col­lect both cards,” read the ad. It was a joke that relied on some com­mu­nal knowl­edge, name­ly, that the Mod­ern Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty could boast maybe two renowned thinkers — the ref­er­ents were pre­sum­ably Rab­bi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rab­bi Aharon Licht­en­stein, his son-in-law; or Rab­bi Dr. Nor­man Lamm, then pres­i­dent of YU — whose Torah exper­tise was on par with their right-wing Ortho­dox peers.

The faux-mar­ket­ing punch­line lands, as Rab­bi Dr. Zev Eleff demon­strates in his Authen­ti­cal­ly Ortho­dox: A Tra­di­tion-Bound Faith in Amer­i­can Life, because it encap­su­lates the very ten­sion at the heart of Amer­i­can Ortho­doxy. Striv­ing for authen­tic­i­ty in the eyes of fel­low Amer­i­cans, along­side expres­sions of tra­di­tion­al reli­gious val­ues, con­sti­tutes its very essence — thus the pro­duc­tion, by the right-wing Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing the base­ball trad­ing card boom days of the 1980’s, of rab­bi cards” depict­ing the faces of major Jew­ish rab­bis and the stats” of the orga­ni­za­tions they led and the learned tomes they wrote. Eleff, the chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer of Hebrew The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege and asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish his­to­ry at Touro Col­lege, is a gift­ed sto­ry­teller and schol­ar. In the lat­est of his vol­umes doc­u­ment­ing Jew­ish com­mu­nal life, he offers well-researched report­ing, keen his­tor­i­cal analy­sis, and the nuanced views of an insid­er in pre­sent­ing var­i­ous ways — trag­ic, humor­ous, and the­o­log­i­cal — that Ortho­dox Jews have lived in the Unit­ed States. As he details, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of spelling bees led to the emer­gence of bra­chot bees,” where­in yeshi­va stu­dents com­pet­ed over which bless­ings to say over cer­tain Jew­ish foods. Lego-like toys were man­u­fac­tured in the more kosher” form of Binyan Blocks,” depict­ing syn­a­gogue scenes and Jew­ish holidays.

As Eleff shows, the strug­gle to feel feal­ty to the faith of Abra­ham and Moses while fit­ting in soci­etal norms has nev­er been sim­ple or lin­ear. Phe­nom­e­na such as wom­en’s prayer groups and mixed-gen­der dances among col­lege-age youth have risen and fall­en. In some com­mu­ni­ties, Mod­ern Ortho­dox day schools closed under pres­sure from more right-wing alter­na­tives. Bat mitz­vahs, orig­i­nat­ing in the Reform move­ment, became accept­able expres­sions of Ortho­doxy. And the insti­tu­tion­al sup­port behind wom­en’s Tal­mud learn­ing waxed, waned, and recent­ly waxed again.

Of inter­est to any­one with­in and beyond the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty intrigued by the dynam­ic ten­sion between faith com­mu­ni­ties and their sur­round­ing cul­tur­al con­texts, Authen­ti­cal­ly Ortho­dox is an enter­tain­ing, infor­ma­tive, and acces­si­ble win­dow into the ever-chang­ing sto­ry of lived tra­di­tion­al life.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions